Thursday, July 21, 2011

What exactly does "Montreal" mean?

We all throw these names around, New York, Portland, Toronto, San Francisco, Vancouver etc. with the assumption that the receiving party knows what we are referring to. But do they?
Does New York actually mean the same thing for a New Yorker, for an American tourist, for a European tourist, for the tax payer, for the consumer etc.? For years, New York meant Manhattan to me. What a complete shock to find out that "New York" is actually a conglomerate of five different boroughs, four of which had been totally off my radar.

Similarly, what exactly is Montreal?
- It is the downtown area?
 - Is it the area comprised within the reach of a metro station?

- Is it the area comprised within the reach of a suburban train station?
- Is it the whole Island?
- Are Westmount, Hampstead, Côte St Luc, TMR and all the independant municipalities part of "Montreal"?

 - Is it the whole metropolitan area, i.e. are the suburbs part of Montreal? How far can you live and still be living in "Montreal"?

Well the answer depends on what you connections are to this maze of identities, and how strongly you feel about them. It also depends, more prosaically, on where you live.
But more importantly, your answer to that question will be more informative about your daily cycling experience, your enjoyment of the infrastructure, the availability thereof and your perception of what the city's bike culture is all about, than anything else you may have to say about Montreal.

Now, this is my personal take on it. You are totally entitled to yours.
Please note that I live downtown, which crucially and deeply affects my perception of reality and conditions my lifestyle. Please further note that this was a choice, we all choose where we live, and this choice turned out to be a lot less expensive than that of those who chose exile.

1. Any area off the island is not Montreal.
Montreal being an island, you either live on it or you don't. And where you have an island you have bridges. Those are hell to cross. We are talking one hour, up to two or three after snowstorms.

2. Anything outside of the island is a suburb, the 450 area (code).
If you live there, whatever bicycle activity you engage into can simply never be included in Montreal's cycling culture. Lots of sporting, week-end, fair-weather and recreational cycling. But nothing urban. Nothing utilitarian. Nada.
Ok, a few die-hard hard-asses practice long-haul commuting, crossing bridges everyday, arriving at work drenched in sweat etc. That's not what we are talking about here either.

We're talking hoping on your clunker and zipping left and right to the movies, to the theater, to the Jazz Fest, to have a drink with your pals, to go get some ice cream, to go to the pool, the grocery store, to the bachelor party, to the library, to the park, to the gym, to the guitar lesson, to pick up your kid etc. in addition to, of course, going to work. You've got your laptop  and gym stuff in a pannier or in that messenger bag, salad, bread and lemonade in that wicker basket and your cell phone within reach because, man! Those buddies of yours changed the plans again: apparently the lounge/restaurant sucks ass so you guys are going straight pool sharking at Ratty's. 
If that's not what you are doing, you're not in business. Period.

3. Anything outside the reach of a metro station is a suburb as well. Depending on the bus network around your area, you might still live in a urban context, but most often than not, it not the case. See point 2.
Typically, West island and East end are not "Montreal".
However, independent municipalities such as Westmount, TMR, Hampstead, Côte St Luc and Montreal ouest are "Montreal" (unfortunately, more on that some other time).

 4. Within "Montreal", not all neighbourhoods weight the same in terms of influence on the city's bike culture.
Some are insignificant and merely followers. Others are leaders in that respect. The Plateau Mont Royal is such a neighbourhood. Actually, it is the main trend-setter, like it or not.
Now, everybody loves to hate that neighbourhood, especially the 450s who cannot spit enough venom about it, yet would sell their souls and their mamma's to live like that. Plateau Mont Royal is Montreal's Williamsburg... enough said.
However, people in there worked hard to get that place to be way it is now. Bicycle lanes did not fall from the sky, nor did they bloomed after last rainfall.
People in there vote for the appropriate people, who in return defend their interests like they are supposed to. And they do it for real. And they have the political balls to hold on tight to these decisions. Chapeau!
Instead of being jealous and bitter, we should do just the same, instead of voting corruption in. Bitching and whining while sitting on one's ass and doing nothing never got anyone anywhere. Again, enough said.

Bottom line, whenever you interact with someone from Montreal, know that unless you know exactly where that person lives and their roaming range, you cannot usefully interpret their take on the city's bike culture. Unless they live or frequent areas where it is really "happening", their take will actually be worthless.

What is the point of all of this rambling?
To help interpret cycling and commuting rates. Throwing cities modal share rates around mean nothing unless we can break it down into neighbourhoods.
In this document I found on the Internet, nine cities are analysed in great details: New York, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Minneapolis and Washington. Very interesting read.

More interesting even are the neighbourhood breakdown maps, on pages 460-462. We get to see exactly where in Portland, Washington and New York people actually cycle. We can see that only certain central areas really matter, the remainders being more or less cycling deserts:

- I am actually not very impressed by New York's detailed rates. With all the hype being waxed on about Williamsburg, one would have expected rates in the 5 %. Alas, New York it is barely pushing the 2 % even in its hottest areas.
- Portland on the other hand has a VERY interesting configuration. On page 461, we can see 6-8% in central boroughs, then a sharp drop outside of that area.

Montreal's Plateau Mont Royal, the most populated neighbourhood, blasted the 10 % this year, as Velo Quebec's President announced in June, while Rosemont, Outremont and Downtown are pushing the 5 %. All of it with a non-supportive administration contrary to Portland.
The latest report on cycling in Quebec is available here in English.
It is therefore not normal that Montreal suffers such under-representation in the blogosphere and on the international cycling scene.

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